A nationwide crackdown on cybercafes announced by China’s Ministry of Culture last week could stifle the country’s ability to develop better computer skills, according to research company Gartner Inc. The new regulations are designed to protect young Internet users from negative social effects and influences in cybercafes. Gartner said the regulations stipulate that all Internet users under the age of 16 should:

    be accompanied by an adult when visiting cybercafesspend no longer than three hours in a single session on the Internet in a cybercafevisit cybercafes only between the hours of 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. on non-school days

In China, the penetration rate of PCs in the home is considerably lower than in the U.S. or Europe and Internet surfing via public cybercafes correspondingly more important. More than 67 per cent of Internet users in China are junior-college-level or below, according to the China Internet Network Information Centre.

Young people are highly addicted to the Internet, Gartner said, with some parents describing the Web as “electronic heroin”.

China’s authorities have held crackdowns on cybercafes before, regarding them as hotbeds of illegal activity, including computer crime and recruitment grounds for organized crime gangs. In the last major crackdown, in 2001, 40,000 police were mobilized and 25,000 cybercafes were shut down, while 72,800 others were ordered to install government-mandated monitoring software, according to the Gartner report.

But the new regulations have significant negative potential, according to Gartner.

“Enforcement in too much of a draconian manner will risk stifling China’s needed growth in computer use and associated skills-both of which are required for the country’s development into a World Trade Organization-era economy,” Gartner said in its report.